Marsha is one of our closest friends. She’s married to Claire, with whom I received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Santa Cruz a few weeks ago (see Recognition in Santa Cruz). Kate and I were married at their home on Whidbey Island in Washington, and we’ve known them longer than any other couple. When Marsha and Claire’s trip to Cuba this month was sideswiped by Obama’s appearance there, they were pretty disappointed to have to postpone it a year. We couldn’t offer them Havana, but we could offer a bunk in Bessie in Texas, and I guess that was good enough for Marsha. Claire stayed behind to work, but Marsha hopped a plane to Austin.
It was back to McKinney Falls for us, after a weekend at my sister’s cabin. We did not mind returning to this lovely haven on the outskirts of town. Our previous spot was taken, but we got a great site next to it, with plenty of trees for hammocks and room to spread out. Our little loop was especially quiet on the weekdays, where we were serenaded by cardinals and songbirds, and a neighbor who quietly practiced fiddle and concertina in the mornings. At night, we listened to coyotes how
When Marsha arrived, we took her to both the upper and lower falls, which were still beautiful but already losing volume from the week before. Marsha’s a photo nut, too, and she enjoyed taking photos there, even though she slipped at the top of the upper falls, a little too close to the drop-off for comfort, and befriended an adorable mutt-puppy who jumped in her lap and threw up on her.
Barton Springs is a set of four cold-water springs in Ziker Park in Austin. In the 1920s, the city dammed the largest of the springs and constructed walls and sidewalks to create a large, semi-natural, spring-fed swimming pool. The resulting pool is impressive. It looks much like a giant man-made pool, complete with lifeguard chairs, steps, and diving board. But the floor of the pool is giant slabs of moss-covered granite, and the water is sparkling clear. Grassy hills around the pool are dotted with sunbathers.
Locals are admitted for just $4, but tourists like us pay $8. Those who don’t want to shell out the bucks are welcome to wade and swim in Barton Creek below the dam – a more natural setting where dogs are also allowed. When Kate and I first discovered this place, we decided to hold off and go when Marsha got there and hot weather was predicted, but we returned the next day with Bailey so she could join other dogs at the creek for a swim.
It was 88 degrees the day we returned with Marsha. We had our towels and sunscreen, all ready to dive into the cool water. But that day, Thursday, was the one day of the week the pool is closed for cleaning. We had to make do with wading in the creek below.
The week before, we’d leaned over the Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset and watched thousands of bats swarm out from the bridge as light faded. This time, we wanted to watch the great bat release from below the bridge. So after picking Marsha up at the airport, we drove directly to the bridge and settled on the grassy hill below. Hundreds of locals and tourists do the same every evening. It’s a festive, light-hearted scene, with locals selling bottled water, children cartwheeling across the lawn, and paddlers collecting on the river.
It was simply impossible to capture what it was like with a camera. The bats flew out like wisps of smoke, then looming clouds. The crowd gasped in awe. Children shouted in glee. Thousands of bats, over ten minutes or so. And then it was done. People collected belongings and blankets and strolled back to cars in the lulling dusk. When I looked at photos later, I saw only smudgy blurs of bats, but enough to convey a sense of it.
When we started this trip, I vowed to get my hair cut only in old-fashioned barber shops with striped poles. I got scalped in Durango Colorado, clipped in Springfield Missouri, and styled in Savannah Georgia. None of the cuts were especially flattering, but that was part of the deal, really… to not worry so much about what I look like.
I veered slightly from my barbershop vow at Sugarloaf Women’s Land in the Keys. Rennie, a professional stylist from Provincetown, was there on vacation and offered up free backyard haircuts to all. That was too good to pass up and was the best haircut I’ve had all year. I kind of hated to eradicate that haircut with another barber snip, but all good haircuts must come to an end, and the Congress Avenue Barber Shop is the epitome of old-style barber shops. It’s probably changed little since it was established in 1933, and it had that unwelcoming men-only vibe, but I barged in anyway and took a seat.
Turns out my barber, Erik, was a very likeable guy. We talked the whole time. Him about growing up in Austin as a first-generation Mexican-American, his Vietnamese wife and their daughter, his massive family gatherings. Me about being on the road with my wife. He also admitted that few women cross the barber shop threshold, but he found it interesting that when they do, the whole tone of the place changes. No cussing or dirty jokes, and the guys get tense. By the end of the haircut, I was so enamored with Erik that I didn’t mind too much that my bangs were, once again, too short.
Shopping and Street Food
We really only had one full day in Austin with Marsha. We started with shopping on Congress Avenue, visiting the same quirky shops we’d gone to with Aly the week before. But I never seem to tire of browsing through bizarre antiques and interesting imports, even when I’m not buying.
Afterwards, we went to Barton Springs Picnic for lunch. It’s a lot filled with food trailers and picnic tables. But it’s not junk food at all. It was hard to choose between the delectable menus. I went for the pad Thai, which was great. Kate and Marsha went to the red “Hey—You Gonna Eat or What?” trailer. It claimed to offer the rudest service, and the trailer was painted with insults (“Gluten allergy? Cowboy up, you wussy!”), but it had an impressively creative menu and a chef with a personality right out of a food network show. He personally delivered the meals and described their creation. Kate had the Monte Cristo with cherry-fig jelly. Marsha had the Mesquite turkey with fried green tomatoes and jalapeno jelly. We all went home happy.
We all wished we had a little more time to spend in Austin, but the campground was booked for the weekend, so we planned to head into Hill Country.